Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Bloom Cafe and The Naked Chef

Here I am in my garden café enjoying the cool morning. The rains have started, signalling the end of the hottest season in Cambodia (my private self yells, “Yay!”, while my business self moans “Oh no…”) Would people walk into a garden in the rain?

I had opened the café for three days last week. We had one walk-in customer on the first day, which was encouraging. Deidre said Bloom café is “an oasis” and that she would be back. She works for Licardho, a leading human rights organisation here. It just so happened that my friends Dale and Kerri were around to give me moral support, so everyone got to know everyone. I really hope Bloom can be a place for introductions. For me, one of the best things about living in a place like Phnom Penh is meeting like-minded individuals. Many of the expats come here to help this country and I really enjoy talking with them. Our conversations are so different from those back home, when I was in a corporate job and talk was always about business. I get really annoyed at how much time I wasted when I think back on those networking sessions when everyone was pretending to be interested in the other person and making conversation in the hopes the other party would be useful someday. We really didn’t care about the other person at all.

The second day, a group of four French expats (one from France, one from Congo and two from Ghana) walked in to have coffee. They live just across the street but we have never talked until that day. I found them, especially the two women from Ghana, to be just lovely and now we wave everytime we see each other. That’s the thing about people, I think we don’t mean to be rude—we’re mostly just shy but give us the right circumstance and we open up. Especially us women, nattering on about clothes, haha!

One of the women said to me, “You have the best garden in the city!” It is a very pretty house. I am lucky to have a garden with actual grass—very rare in the city. I find Phnom Penh to be like Singapore in that way. In Singapore, most people cannot be bothered with gardens and pave their outdoors. I suppose it’s much easier to maintain (cutting grass is a pain, but I love pottering around the garden) and busy city people cannot afford the time to prune and water and what have you.

But mostly it was my friends who patronised, which was very, very helpful. I shut the café after the three days to take in all the feedback and to improve till we reopen again after the weekend. The main things I changed were things on the menu, but even lighting and fans. These are things you won’t realise until you actually open. The prefectionist in me kept putting off Bloom café’s opening because I was so nervous things would go wrong. I now realise that things go wrong anyway, despite your best intentions and you just have to go with the flow.

The cook I had hired for dinners told me the day before Bloom café was due to open that she had been given an ultimatum by the boss of the other nearby restaurant she was working at—either work here or there. R had wanted to supplement her income by taking on a part-time job working evenings at Bloom after her shift at the other place ended. As Bloom is just down the street from her other workplace, it would have been ideal for her. I had already voiced my concerns that the boss of the other restaurant would not be happy, but she reassured me numerous times that it was no problem, because it would not affect her work there. I had assumed she had told the other boss.

Turned out she hadn’t, and he later found out, thus the ultimatum. R chose to stay at the more established place, leaving me without a dinner cook on opening day. Fortunately, my day cook is very understanding, and stayed on the whole day. Chanto was previously a cook at the posh Malis restaurant, near Norodom Boulevard, which specialises in Khmer dishes. R would have made a good complement as she specialises in Western food. I was fortunate that Chanto had also trained at the Intercontinental Hotel here in Phnom Penh (for USD20 a month!) and so made a fantastic Oven Baked Bread with Goat Cheese, Mushrooms and Caramelised Onions, topped with Herbs! I mention this only because it was so good Dale had to stop herself from ordering a third plate!

Before R had joined, she had insisted on signing a contract, because there isn’t one where she works, which led to all sorts of issues. I was very disappointed, therefore, when she broke the contract. I shouldn’t generalise, but if this is any indication, I do not understand what a contract means for a Khmer. Presumably I am bound to my word, but not the employee. In another country (the US, namely!) I could sue R and maybe even the (Western) owner of the other restaurant, for inducing R to breach the contract. But this is Cambodia, and we cut our losses and move on.

I probably have not written about Bloom cafe’s mission and all that. The easiest way to understand what we are doing is to think of The Naked Chef's project in London. I think Jamie Oliver's restaurant is called “Fifteen”. I am shamelessly copying Oliver because he has demonstrated that it is possible to train street children in a kitchen through in a profitable restaurant. The Bloom café team (the cook, waiter and Ming Vee, our housekeeper who has been so supportive) all understand the plan. I am planning for half the profits to go to staff and half to return to the business so we can expand and start training “Ait-Jai” children. I call them “Ait-Jai” children because these kids, some who look like 6 year olds to me, go around calling out “Ait-Jai” as they walk around pushing a large wheelbarrow-like cart, collecting rubbish which they fill in the cart. (For Singaporeans, it is like the Karang-guni men we used to have. Now of course, they drive around in big trucks).

Five empty soft-drink cans can fetch 300 riels (less than 10 cents US). I have been told successful “’Ait-Jai” collectors can make 10,000 riels (US2.50) a day, although with so much competition, it is hard to believe they are able to make so much often. Because of the money, one of the challenges Riverkids faces is convincing parents to let their kids go to school instead of collecting rubbish.

The other day R told me her husband saw an “Ait-Jai” man around her age (mid-20s) who had died on the street, they suspect, from sniffing glue and starvation (many street teenagers sniff glue, which makes them lose their appetite). R had cried when she told me this. So many Khmers feel for their fellowmen but are unable to do anything about it. They tell me all the time “Kampuchea bpi-bak” (Cambodia, difficult).


Vegemight said...

Hi Diana, I'm so excited for you - your cafe is FINALY up and running. I wish I can be there! You've GOT TO send me lots of pics (not the naked chef nor your housekeeper...) so I can help "promote" your cafe to my friends in my blog!
Lots of hugs & kisses,

reene said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
reene said...

Hi Diana,

It's Reene! Congrats on the opening! I'll definitely take a vacation to visit you soon!!! Hopefully this year.. :)

Take Care!!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Diana,

No matter what [lnas you make it is going to go wriong. Is there any wway to PR the hell out of theplace amongst the expat community - just thinking out aloud.

Look forward to see how it goes, Cheers

Unknown said...

Hi Diana,

This is Maureen, remember me? I came with my mum, Julie and my brother to your cafe.

When we saw the rooms you had, my mum and I instantly regretting not staying with you!!!!!! So, I have decided that the next time I am in Phnom Penh, I will stay at your guesthouse!!! And I want the room with the nice big bath tub!! PLEASE!!! hahaha

Plus, the food is just great!! Anyone going to Phnon Penh should drop by Diana's cafe.

There are silk bags that are made by the Bloomers, which are really pretty!! My friends love the silk bags I bought from you, Diana. They can't stop pawing at them, that I am glad the bags were not white.

Anyway, I hope that the next time I go to Phnom Penh, the Bloomers have more items to sell. Please tell them that we think the bags were really pretty.

Best regards,

Maureen Kang

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Diana Saw said...

hi guys,
thanks for all the encouraging words and sorry for dropping off the radar. if you read the last post, you's know why. thanks q, am still trying to market cafe. but you're the expert at marketing!

maureen- thanks so much for the kind words. we really appreciate all the help you gave to riverkids. the children were so happy! i do hope you'll be back soon!

reene- what's up? haven't heard from you for so long. come visit and bum lah!

and pauline! your second visit is long overdue! have been trying to knit but still struggling. one day, one day!



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